WINNIPEG — Some teens in Manitoba youth jails appear to be punished excessively with pepper spray, restraints and isolation, the province’s children’s advocate said Wednesday.
In her annual report, Darlene MacDonald said her office has been fielding complaints from teens who say they have suffered while being held in custody. Among her top concerns is the use of pepper spray.
“Accounts indicate that the noxious substance may be being used not as a last resort due to imminent danger of injury or harm, but rather as a method of controlling behaviour,” the report states.
“Similarly, we’ve had reports of youth being restrained or kept in isolation under circumstances that appear to be in response to behavioural or mental health issues.”
A large part of the problem, MacDonald said, is that youth jails need more programs and support for kids who have complex mental health needs, so that less-punishing methods can be used to handle the teens.
“These kids are very difficult to handle at various points in time, dealing with behavioural issues and not enough treatment facilities for them,” MacDonald said in an interview.
Families Minister Scott Fielding said MacDonald had revealed her concerns recently to the government and a review in conjunction with the provincial ombudsman was already underway.
“They’ll be requesting information from applicable … authorities and agencies regarding services provided in the youth justice system,” Fielding said Wednesday.
“We want to make sure that kids and people that are in these correctional institutions are safe, that there are standards and protocols.”
MacDonald echoed warnings in previous annual reports that Manitoba has the highest rate of youth incarceration, and more than half the teens being held are awaiting trial and have nowhere to go.
“We have seen a significant number of youth in care held in remand not because of violent crimes, but because a foster placement is not immediately available to them due to their complex needs.”
Keeping teens in custody is expensive and can increase the chances of gang involvement, she added.
Both the previous NDP government and the Tories have made changes to the child welfare system in an attempt to stem the rising number of kids in care. Manitoba has among the highest rates of children in the system and most are indigenous.
Fielding said the Tories will be focusing on early intervention programs to help families before they reach a crisis point and have their children seized.
He is also promising new legislation in the spring to expand the powers of the children’s advocate office, so that it can investigate more matters outside the child welfare system. The legislation will also make the office truly independent from the Department of Families, Fielding said.